"The revolution will be televised". So says Apple, in its overly hyperbolic fashion about its latest product, the Apple TV. With the Apple TV, the company is trying to stamp its name on digital video the way that it has digital music. If Apple is expecting to start a revolution in the same way that the iPod did, it needs to make it a hell of a lot better than this.
For anyone familiar with the Mac mini or the Airport Extreme there will be no surprises as to the shape of the Apple TV. In fact, when the Airport Extreme first arrived we initially mistook it for the Apple TV. It's roughly 20cm by 20cm and 3cm in height. It's an amalgam of plastic and metal with a rubberized base. Build quality, as you'd expect from Apple, is exceptional.
The Apple TV also ships with the old faithful Apple remote with its iPod-style navigation and Menu button. Unlike the PlayStation 3 it's still infrared, so you can program it into your universal remote for convenience's sake.
Being that it is a home theatre device, the Apple TV features a full complement of outputs, including component, optical, HDMI and stereo RCA. Don't think about getting this device if you only have a composite or S-Video connection on your TV -- it simply won't work. There is a USB port onboard, but strangely this isn't for connecting the iPod -- which seems an obvious thing to do -- but for external hard drives and USB keys. Finally, rounding out the connectivity options are a draft-N adaptor and a LAN port.
The Apple TV's Front Row software is one of the best looking media managers we've seen.
The Apple TV has a narrow selection of supported formats, which is one of the main issues with this device. It'll support a few different flavours of MP4, including H.264, as well as supporting MP3 and AAC. The problem with this device is that Apple's other product -- the iPod -- was an MP3 player first, and AAC and the iTunes were a logical next step. It took what was a popular music format and took it beyond the PC in a very successful way; The Apple TV is hindered because it is trying to go the other way: take a moderately successful, region-locked video store and bring it to your TV. And it's trying to do so with its own proprietary video formats. It's doomed to fail because it doesn't use the most popular video format -- DiVX -- at the heart of it. Have the advances made by EMI and Steve Jobs himself meant nothing? DRM doesn't work.
But it's not all bad news -- with its black and white interface the Apple TV (Front Row) software is one of the most dynamic and pleasing GUIs available. It's stylish in every way you expect Apple to be. It's also intuitive, but that said, it's not as simple to use as the iPod.
For all intents and purposes the Apple TV is a hobbled Mac mini; it features a modified version of OSX designed to run Apple's media centre software, Front Row; an NVIDIA GeForce Go 7300 for video; an 802.11n (draft) wireless card; and a low-power Intel processor. The Apple TV's credentials have even inspired a whole community of users dedicated to converting the device into a computer -- with varying degrees of success.
Before you can start synching your iTunes library you first need to connect to your network. You can use either the draft-N wireless connection or the Ethernet port. For a truly stable and secure connection use Ethernet, but if your router is close by a wireless connection should be OK. To set-up either choose Settings from the menu and either "Configure Wireless" or "Configure TCP/IP". Both options are easy to use -- as long as you know your wireless settings. The next part isn't as easy, however.
Clicking the Apple TV icon and entering the code syncs the two.
While this five-digit code appears on your TV, the Apple TV device will also appear in your iTunes.
To sync your Apple TV with your iTunes, you navigate to the main menu and select Sources -> Connect To New iTunes. This brings up a five digit code on both your screen and your iTunes. The Apple TV device will appear in your iTunes "Devices" list while these numbers are onscreen, but at NO OTHER TIME. Not even after you've synched them together. This can make it frustrating to set-up and use if your PC is in another room -- as presumably it would be. However, once synched you won't have to worry about it again.
If you want to use the device by itself, and not rely on your iTunes library being open all the time, you can synch the content across to the Apple TV. This is time consuming though: it took six hours to synch 30GB of music via a draft-N wireless connection.
We also showed the Apple TV where our collection of TV shows and video clips was, and from the dozens of DivX and MP4 files available it only liked two -- a little disappointing. But once your content is on there -- whether video or audio -- the performance is quite good. Sound is quite decent, and equal to the Media Centre PC we were using to sync the Apple TV with, even when using the analog outs. Of the two film clips we could view, the quality was good despite their compressed nature.
In addition, you can also synch the iPod to your photo gallery, but for PC it uses a really obscure method, being Adobe Photoshop Elements, instead of iTunes own Photo library. Despite our best efforts, and following the manual to the letter, we weren't able to upload any photos to the Apple TV.
The "killer app", as far as Australia is concerned, is the ability to download film trailers -- certainly not as cool as the US's TV shows or movies, but still saves you the hassle of visiting the Apple Web site. Video quality was dependent on the original trailer, but in most cases it was very watchable.
One thing we didn't appreciate though, was the inability to make playlists -- either on the fly or otherwise -- which is a great pity, because this is one of the greatest strengths of the iPod. You can still make them in iTunes and transfer them, if you can be bothered.
To make Apple TV truly compelling, Apple needs to remove its reliance on a Mac or PC altogether. It can already download trailers from the Apple Web site, all it needs to do now is connect to an iPod.
In the States, this may be a more immediately satisfying product, but the fact is that the Apple TV does very little and does so at a relatively high cost. The Xbox 360 Core is only AU$50 more than this device and, when coupled to your Windows XP Media Centre or Windows Vista Premium PC, performs all the same functions -- as well as play DVDs and Guitar Hero!